Bernard A Weisberger. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
In the history of the presidency, the period from 1865 to 1901 is usually perceived as something of a wasteland. Andrew Johnson is remembered as the only chief executive to be impeached, and Grant, as the one with the most scandal-scarred record; and then come those presidents of whom it has been written that “their gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces mixed, melted, swam together … which was which?” Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, and Harrison perfectly fit that image of forgettableness. Cleveland escapes oblivion, for he, at least, held office twice. And McKinley, though popular in his day, is probably best remembered now as the president whose assassination elevated Theodore Roosevelt, his vice president, to the White House.
This view is a touch—though only a touch—unfair and is typical of the cult of personality, which holds as an article of faith that the character of the president transcends or creates the momentary health of the office itself. That may be so when a political genius like Lincoln is in the White House, but it does not follow that presidents who are not geniuses are necessarily mediocrities. Garfield and Arthur, in particular, may have had only mediocre talents, but in the period from 1881 to 1885, even men of greater gifts would have had a hard time with the presidency.
It was not a time to articulate issues, because they had not yet come into clear focus. The great questions of the Civil War had been settled, but the problems of postwar expansion were not yet in sharp outline. There was no rhetoric to deal with the social problems posed by the city, immigration, labor, the trusts, and the railroads. Nor was there much of a will to do so when times were good. When times were bad, politicians approached the remedies by familiar paths. Arguments over the tariff, monopolies, paper money, and the spoils system went back to the age of Jackson and could be warmed over without much regard to how they fit the facts of the Gilded Age, which were still incomplete and uncatalogued.
The machinery of government under the Constitution, too, was old and in disrepair. The balance of power between president and Congress was still—only twelve years after Andrew Johnson’s trial—tipped in the direction of Capitol Hill. The executive office itself lacked anything resembling an information-gathering, planning, or policymaking staff, and presidents still, willingly or not, received the public several times weekly. Congress was not much better: it had gotten too big to be an effective debating society; its rules and committee structure in no way expedited the flow of business; and while it had strong personalities, especially in the Senate, they tended to their own fiefdoms rather than attempting to define a national or even party consensus.
The parties themselves were loose, faction-ridden confederations of state machines, and what was more, neither one had an iron grip on the country. Elections were close, control of Congress swung back and forth almost every two years, and nothing resembling a mandate was visible.
Add to these institutional failings the fact that the truly exciting developments of the age were in business and invention, and it is small wonder that Viscount Bryce could devote an entire chapter of The American Commonwealth to explaining why the nation’s best men did not go into politics. The most that could realistically be expected from presidents, other than personal integrity, would be a holding action until the country caught up with the implications of the age of steel and steam. If they kept the peace at home and abroad, and took even tentative steps toward getting the country to confront the new order of things, they deserved—as Garfield and Arthur deserve—at least a minimum passing grade from historians.
Portrait of a Winning Dark Horse
Both men were, in a sense, “accidental” chief executives: Garfield was a dark horse who had presidential ambitions but no real expectations of achieving them in the spring of 1880, and Arthur was elevated to the office by the assassin’s bullet. The battle of that year’s Republican nominating convention was supposed to take place between James G. Blaine and former President Ulysses S. Grant, a sign of a badly factionalized Grand Old Party. Behind Grant’s third-term bid was the force of New York’s imperious and arrogant Senator Roscoe Conkling, leader of the so-called Stalwart Republicans, undeviatingly loyal to the Radical Republican shibboleths of Grant’s presidential heyday—the “bloody shirt,” so-called carpetbag and black rule in the South, hard money, and high tariffs. Opposed to Conkling was Senator James G. Blaine, former Speaker of the House, a man of vast charm and, it was persistently suspected, little principle. Blaine’s followers were allegedly (but not always actually) less Radical and therefore clubbed Half-Breeds.
The actual contest between the groups was over power and personality rather than ideology. Both Conkling and Blaine wanted control of the patronage, and they were like-minded in their disdain for the good-government and civil-service reformers, who had bolted in 1872 (as Liberal Republicans) and returned in 1876 to exert a strong influence in the administration of Hayes. Because Hayes had publicly condemned the spoils system, pursued corrupt officeholders, and pulled federal troops out of the South (abandoning southern Republicans to their dismal fate), he was anathema to both Stalwarts and Half-Breeds and, although an incumbent, stood no chance of renomination.
None of the three groups—Half-Breeds, Stalwarts, and Reformers, sometimes called Independents—was strong enough to win alone, a fact that became apparent after a few ballots. Convention brokers would have to build a majority (379-vote) coalition behind someone other than Grant or Blaine. One of the contenders was Ohio’s John Sherman, brother of the general and secretary of the treasury; but the aging and colorless Sherman had too many liabilities. The politicos began to make overtures instead to his campaign manager, Senator James A. Garfield of Ohio. Garfield was, of course, supposed to be steadfast to his man’s cause and to reject such bids, but he did not.
As a candidate, he had far greater assets than Sherman. He was born poor (in 1831) in rural Ohio, helped support a widowed mother, and worked briefly as a barge driver, creating the perfect title for Horatio Alger’s campaign biography: From Canal Boy to President. He had traveled far from the tow-path, too. For a time after graduation from Williams College, he had been a professor of classics and then president of what later became Hiram College. He went into politics as an antislavery Republican in 1859 but left a seat in the Ohio legislature to see action in the Civil War, where he rose to be an unusually competent political general. That gave him first-class credentials to win election to the House (1863) and then to the Senate (1880).
Garfield was, to some extent, a perfect moderate. He read widely (and unobtrusively) without its visibly affecting his Christianity, his Republicanism, or his general laissez-faire orthodoxy. He was not so much a scholar in politics as a politic scholar. He was flexible enough about the tariff and civil service reform to be a Half-Breed but sound enough on the money question and the bloody shirt for the Stalwarts to live with him. He worked hard and was respected by his colleagues. He had enough ambition to move ahead in party ranks and enough self-doubt (well concealed) to avoid the kind of strutting that came naturally to a Conkling and that multiplied enemies.
On the thirty-sixth ballot, Garfield was nominated. Following custom, he immediately made a bid for unity by seeking for the vice presidency a member of the “defeated” Stalwarts. The choice of Chester A. Arthur was somewhat breathtaking, for he was no ordinary Stalwart but Roscoe Conkling’s widely known lieutenant—or as many of Conkling’s opponents more unkindly put it, his creature. In fact, he had been head of the New York Customhouse, the great fount of Stalwart patronage, and had been fired (to Conkling’s undying rage) by President Hayes in a cleanup move. (Interestingly enough, Garfield himself did not make the offer; it came through a lieutenant. Conkling ungraciously and unsuccessfully advised Arthur to “drop it as you would a red hot shoe from the forge,” since Garfield was bound to lose.) The reformers in the party had to swallow hard, but as one of their chief journals, the Nation, consolingly put it, there was no place in which Arthur’s “powers of mischief will be so small as in the Vice-Presidency.”
The Democrats nominated a candidate with no previous political experience—General Winfield Scott Hancock, sardonically described by the New York Sun as “a good man, weighing two hundred and eighty pounds.” Both of the major-party platforms waffled on the issues of the tariff and civil service, and both repeated standard party pieties. A third force was in the field, the Greenback party, demanding not only inflation but such far-reaching measures as the eight-hour day, a graduated income tax, and federal railroad regulation, but its appeal was negligible.
If there was any incident of significance during the election summer, it was a meeting (5 August) of Garfield and Blaine with Stalwart leaders in New York City, at which, apparently, all the Republican factions agreed to cooperate in return for an appropriate sharing of offices. Conkling did not attend but did give his sanction and later visited (and campaigned for) Garfield in Ohio. The terms of the “Treaty of Fifth Avenue” were unrecorded and later disputed, with fateful results for Garfield’s short administration. Garfield was also helped by a war chest that came from businessmen and Republican officeholders, who were “assessed” a percentage of their salaries, a practice shared in by the Democrats.
The campaign and election were scarcely noteworthy, except possibly for the closeness of the popular vote. Out of 9.2 million ballots cast, Garfield’s final lead was a mere 7,368—not exactly a mandate. When the results were counted, he had won comfortably by 214 to 155 in the Electoral College, without carrying a single southern state, evidence of the final burial of Reconstruction. (The key electoral votes were the 35 of New York; had they gone to Hancock, the decision would have been reversed—a fact that Conkling did not forget.) Moreover, although the Republicans regained control of the House, the Senate was split exactly evenly between the two parties. Garfield therefore began more or less shackled. Even before his inauguration, the problems posed by his initial appointments fully justified one of his diary entries for November: “There is a tone of sadness running through this triumph.”
Patronage and Power
The process of cabinet making, not completed until after the inauguration, foreshadowed trouble. For secretary of state, Garfield chose Blaine, first extracting from him a promise not to make the office “the camping ground for fighting the next presidential battle.” Blaine gave his word, but temperamentally incapable of keeping it, he was soon busily meddling in Garfield’s other appointments. Conkling expected as his reward the right to name the head of the Treasury Department, which carried with it control of the patronage of the customhouses. But Garfield rejected Conkling’s candidate, the banker Levi P. Morton, and instead gave New York the position of postmaster general in the person of Thomas L. James, much to Conkling’s annoyance.
Other choices reflected a sensible desire to build needed harmony within the contentious party. The War Department went to Robert Todd Lincoln, who was not only the son of the Great Emancipator but the protégé of Senator John A. Logan, an Illinois Stalwart. The choice of Wayne MacVeagh as attorney general pleased the Pennsylvania boss Senator J. Donald Cameron, who had gone to the 1880 convention as a Grant man. William Hunt, who got the navy portfolio, was from the dwindling ranks of southern Republicans. The Treasury and Interior departments went to a pair of moderate midwesterners, William Windom of Minnesota and Samuel J. Kirkwood of Iowa.
Cabinet selection was an exhaustive process, not completed until Garfield had actually delivered his inaugural address, a compendium of platitudes. The only possible hint of future policy was in the reference to the blacks of the South. They were praised for earning “the blessings that gather around the homes of the industrious poor” and were promised that their future would be assured by “the saving influence of universal education.”
But with the cabinet completed, Garfield could not yet escape the importunings of hundreds of other office seekers, whose demands caused him to exclaim wearily, “My God! What is there in this place that a man should ever want to get into it!” While his wife, daughter, and four sons seemed to settle happily into the White House, he was finding it a harder battleground than any he had known in uniform.
Shortly after his inauguration, Garfield met with Conkling. The New York senator, never easy to deal with, was especially eager to be placated. He resented Blaine’s eminence in the cabinet and influence on Garfield. What was worse for him was a deepening split in the ranks of his own state machine. He wanted Garfield’s assignment of federal jobs in New York to reward the friends, and punish the enemies, of Roscoe Conkling. Garfield promised the rewards, but not the punishments, and named five Conkling associates to federal jobs, including the lucrative spot of United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, on 22 March. The news brought an agitated Secretary Blaine rushing to the White House for a mid-dinner conference. He persuaded Garfield to redress the pro-Stalwart balance by some additional appointments, and the centerpiece of his plan was to replace the collector of the Port of New York, a reformer who had succeeded Chester A. Arthur in the job, with William H. Robertson, the chief New York backer of Blaine in 1880.
When Robertson’s name was sent to the Senate for confirmation the next morning, it not only stung reform-minded Republicans but was denounced by Conkling as “perfidy without parallel.” To lose control of the customhouse would wreck his machine, and he promised, “There will be hell before Judge Robertson is confirmed.” Garfield, who had previously shown no disposition for conflict, suddenly dug in his heels. For a long time he had disliked the practice of “senatorial courtesy,” the informal veto allowed each senator over appointments within his state. In 1872 he described it as a “corrupt and vicious” practice that gave the Senate the irresponsible power to thwart the president. The issue, as he saw it, was “whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States.” He announced that Robertson might be “carried out of the Senate head first or feet first,” but he would not withdraw the nomination.
In pressing what simply appeared to be a shabby intraparty battle on Blaine’s behalf, Garfield adorned his short administration with its only achievement. He wooed and threatened, and in the end, a majority of Republican senators realized that the prudent course was to follow him. Confronting defeat, Conkling and the other New York senator, Thomas Platt, resigned in mid-May, just before Robertson’s confirmation. They hoped to be vindicated through reelection by the New York state legislature. They failed in that, too.
In winning the battle over Robertson, Garfield had helped to replenish the reservoir of executive power, thoroughly depleted by Congress in Andrew Johnson’s day. He had taken a step toward the modern presidency. As Garfield’s latest biographer, Allan Peskin, puts it, Blaine and Conkling had more or less forced him into the fight, but “the path upon which he had been pushed led straight to the twentieth century.”
The political situation in the Senate was also responsible for a sketchy Garfield initiative on a new southern policy. The Republicans and Democrats were exactly balanced in voting strength there, but the Republicans would be able to organize and control the committees if they could win the vote of a newly elected independent member, Virginia’s scrappy little William Mahone. He was a former Confederate general and a former Democrat who had run on the ticket of the Readjusters, a group of dissenters, black and white, from both major parties who wanted to lighten the huge burden of bonded indebtedness that the Reconstruction governments had incurred for the benefit of railroads and other corporations. Mahone could be induced to vote Republican if rewarded with patronage in the Senate and cooperation back in Virginia. Garfield approved the deal, though with misgivings. It meant a partial abandonment of the traditional and heavily black Republican machines in the South in order to woo discontented white Democrats, which accelerated the incoming tide of black disfranchisement. The president consoled himself for this desertion with the thought that the key to the freed-men’s future, as he had said on taking office, might be in the schoolhouse rather than the ballot box.
Garfield had time for only one completed domestic achievement. He directed Secretary Windom to refund the national debt, by calling in outstanding United States bonds issued at 6 percent and giving holders the option of cashing them in or holding on to them at 3.5 percent, which was more in line with existing interest rates. The move, it was estimated, saved the taxpayers $10 million—a number better appreciated when set against the fact that total federal expenditures in 1881 were under $261 million.
While the battles over appointments were raging, Secretary Blaine plunged enthusiastically into a new, aggressive hemispheric diplomacy. He threatened to intervene in disputes between Chile and Peru and between Mexico and Guatemala, he brandished the Monroe Doctrine in Great Britain’s face, and he proposed a Pan-American conference that would have been dominated by the United States. He also made overtures toward prying open markets for American goods in Europe, Asia, and Africa. None of these adventurous and uncoordinated initiatives was supported by adequate power, and none reached a level where it became the concern of the president before 2 July 1881.
Tragedy, Succession, and Surprise
On that date, Charles J. Guiteau shot his way into American history. Guiteau was one of those self-important, self-anointed cranks who haunt the shadowy fringes of power and are merely nuisances until their potential for violence explodes. A failed Oneida colonist, lawyer, religious journalist, and husband, he hung around Republican headquarters in 1880, distributing privately printed copies of a bizarre pro-Republican speech that he believed entitled him to a diplomatic post after Garfield’s victory. Brushed off repeatedly at the White House and State Department, he suddenly received what he believed to be a vision from God, wherein he was told that things were not going well with the Republic and that the problem was the new president, who must be removed. Armed with this commandment and a .44-caliber ivory-handled revolver, Guiteau followed Garfield and his traveling party into the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station and shot him in the back at point-blank range. Then the assassin calmly accepted his arrest, saying, “I am a Stalwart. Arthur is now president of the United States.”
Garfield lingered through a torrid, agonizing summer, wasting away from the effects of blood poisoning caused by the bullet in his spine. It says much about the nature of the federal government in 1881 that there was no problem of carrying on official business during the president’s incapacity, which was not to be the case when Woodrow Wilson was fighting for his life in 1919–1920. Congress was in recess, the minimal bureaucracy was virtually shut down in the hot months, and the department heads had no decisions to refer to the president. The basic concern of thoughtful men was what would happen if and when Garfield finally died. The casual way in which the vice presidency was used as a political bargaining chip once again haunted those who believed, with the New York Times, that Arthur’s previous career had been a “mess of filth.” Even among his familiars, it was later testified, the common reaction was, “Chet Arthur, president of the United States? Good God!”
On 19 September the inevitable calamity came. Garfield died that evening, and at 2:15 A.M. the next day Arthur was sworn in as president in his Manhattan home by a New York State judge. What followed would prove surprising to many people, possibly including Arthur himself.
Arthur’s pre-presidential career was not precisely a “mess of filth”—newspaper editors were then prone to hyperbole—but it did not promise much. Arthur was born in 1829 and raised in a Baptist parsonage in Vermont. He escaped from the icy clutch of New England piety by brainpower. He attended Union College and became successively a school-teacher, a lawyer, and a Whig (later Republican) politician, having learned the trade from the master, Thurlow Weed. In 1861 he was made quartermaster general of New York State, thereby earning and keeping the useful title “General,” and making important friends among contractors and suppliers. The next year he left the service, gradually became Conkling’s chief lieutenant, and in 1871 was rewarded by Grant with the New York collector’s job. That empire of fees and jobs allowed him to indulge his Victorian gentlemanly taste for fine food, wines, and cigars; elegant clothes; and leisure. As president, he would keep a ten-to-four workday and a five-day workweek and rarely “did today what he could put off until tomorrow.” Some of his indolence may have come from bad health; no one knew at the time that he had Bright’s disease. (He was to die of it in 1886, two days after prudently burning all his personal papers.)
As a cultivated and rather aloof man who might have been more at home in London than in Washington, Arthur did not fit the crude image of the party hack. He was, as biographer Thomas Reeves styled him, a “gentleman boss.” What the reformers feared was that he would, in effect, turn over the administration of the United States to Roscoe Conkling and the Stalwart machine.
Instead, he scrupulously avoided any taint of jobbery. Conkling got no cabinet seat. (He was offered, but declined, a Supreme Court seat.) Blaine was replaced at the State Department by an experienced and able lawyer and Senate veteran, Frederick T Frelinghuysen of New Jersey. Like several other replacements made by Arthur, he was a Stalwart but one with a clean personal record. The main Half-Breed appointment was that of William E. Chandler, a close ally of Blaine, to the Navy Department. More significant was something Arthur did not do: he made no attempt to replace Robertson in the New York Customhouse or to open up other patronage jobs for his friends by purging earlier appointees. “He has done less for us than Garfield, or even Hayes,” one Stalwart lamented.
Arthur also inherited one major controversial issue from Garfield in the form of the star-route cases. Along certain star routes, the Post Office Department had the power to award contracts for mail delivery to private express companies rather than setting up its own systems. It was alleged that under Grant some postal officials and contractors had colluded to bilk the government of several millions in padded charges. Garfield’s attorney general was supposed to proceed to trial, which was embarrassing, since two of the defendants, Stephen Dorsey and Thomas Brady, had played prominent parts as Republican fund-raisers in the 1880 campaign. Arthur replaced MacVeagh with Benjamin Brewster and told him, “I desire that these people shall be prosecuted with the utmost vigor of the law.” The order was carried out, though one trial was invalidated and a second one resulted in acquittal.
As a onetime Conkling follower, Arthur was expected to resist civil service reform stubbornly. Nothing had exceeded the contempt of Conkling himself for the “carpet-knights and man-milliners” of the clean-government camp. But the shock of the assassination made the merit system a proposal whose time had come, as Arthur recognized. In his maiden speech as president, he damned civil service professionalization with the faintest of praise but said he would sign any measure designed to achieve it. Such a bill, the Pendleton Act, did finally cross his desk in January 1883. It was limited in its application, covering only about 11 percent of all federal employees and leaving wide openings for political assessments and payoffs, but it set up the Civil Service Commission, which could later plug those gaps. Arthur not only signed the act but appointed good men to the commission and was praised in their 1885 official report for his “friendly support.”
Arthur also seemed willing to modify Stalwart orthodoxy, which decreed support for a high tariff. His second annual message called for reductions in duties on such important items as cotton, iron, steel, sugar, molasses, silk, wool, and woolen goods. Arthur’s conversion was in part a product of his discomfort with a treasury surplus, which tariff collections had helped to generate; he believed it was better to have the money out in circulation, helping the economy. It was also a dutiful follow-up to the report of a special tariff commission created by law in 1882 that, although heavily weighted with protectionists, believed many duties could and should be lowered. Congress, while recognizing a growing pressure for modification, proved customarily susceptible to strong lobbying from special-interest groups, and the result was a weak compromise known as the Mongrel Tariff.
In many of his early actions, as president, Arthur gave the impression of someone who, once he got into the office, felt a sudden responsibility to protect and defend its prerogatives. That transformation—which Arthur was not the last to undergo—was most in evidence when he stamped his veto on legislation. Most nineteenth-century presidents shrank from the political barrage that they knew they would have to endure if they said no to a congressional majority. Some still had constitutional qualms about when it was proper to block a bill, but Arthur was on record in favor of an “item veto,” which would have let him cancel unpalatable parts of measures that he otherwise approved—something no president has yet gotten—and he did not hesitate to return a porkbarrel internal-improvements bill of 1882 to the Hill, claiming that it was an “extravagant expenditure of public money.”
There was a better-known veto in that same year, one firmly anchored to the executive privilege of defending a treaty. In 1868 the United States and China had signed the Burlingame Treaty, giving the nationals of each power the right of free travel and residence in the other. But as wave after wave of Chinese poured into west coast ports to work in the mines and on the railroads, a backlash of already strong anti-Oriental sentiment built up to politically irresistible levels. Racism and economic anxiety reinforced each other as labor unions and politicians—especially on the west coast—demanded that “coolie laborers” be barred from American shores and that Anglo-Saxon civilization be preserved from opium smoking, gambling, and other heathen vices. The Burlingame Treaty was modified by a new one in 1880, giving Congress some powers over Chinese immigration. Thus armed, the lawmakers, in March 1882, enacted a twenty-year ban on the “importation” of Chinese laborers. The same law denied American citizenship to Chinese and imposed special restrictions and requirements on Chinese nationals visiting the United States.
Arthur struck the bill down. He was not entirely heroic; his message indicated that he would accept a ten-year restriction as an “experiment,” and part of his motive was fear that the bill would “repel Oriental nations from us and … drive their trade and commerce into more friendly hands.” He did note that the law, by overriding a treaty, was “a breach of our national faith” and that parts of it were “undemocratic and hostile to the spirit of our institutions.” Congress yielded to the president to the extent of passing a fresh exclusion law, this time reducing the term to ten years, and Arthur went along. (The law was consistently renewed, and the hapless Chinese government could only agree to an accomplished fact.) In one other case in 1882, Arthur vetoed a measure setting safety and health standards for incoming immigrant steamers. His grounds were partly technical, but Congress, as in the case of Chinese exclusion, reworked the law to meet his objections before getting his approval.
These were hardly executive triumphs, but they seem somewhat greater when viewed in context. The presidential office had been emasculated under Johnson and disgraced under Grant, and in the disputed election of 1876 it had been further tainted by cheating, haggling, and a secret deal between Republican and Democratic bosses. That Arthur was able to assert any prerogative at all—even negatively, by veto—was a small foretaste of a better future for the presidency.
For the most part, he lacked the initiative for leadership, but in one single area, naval policy, Arthur made at least some difference, through a strong commitment to the modernization and rebuilding of the American fleet. His aim was to correct a weakness in foreign policy—namely, the lack of adequate power to make a drive for expanded commerce.
A Strong Hand at Sea and Overseas
When Secretary Frelinghuysen replaced Blaine in November 1880, he inherited a set of tangles caused by the Maine politico’s robust sense of America’s place in the world. Blaine shared William H. Seward’s ambitious Whig vision of the national future: the United States should be a great trading power, supreme in the markets of Latin America, linked to the great undeveloped markets of Asia through commercial treaties, and boasting a chain of protective bases in every ocean. Elements of this star-spangled scheme included an American-dominated canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific, a Pan-American union and reciprocity treaties, and a consensus among the “civilized” powers to share equally in trade with the “backward” nations.
The trouble was that in 1881 these imperial fancies were spun on behalf of a United States with a navy of thirty-seven fighting ships (exclusive of thirteen monitors for coastal defense), thirty-three of which were wooden sailing vessels in an age of armor-plated steamers—a United States, moreover, that had never replaced the merchant marine destroyed during the Civil War and that had no professional diplomatic or consular service. The result was thwarted initiatives at every turn. Blaine had tried to intervene in the War of the Pacific between Chile and Peru—won by Chile—with a strong pro-Peruvian stand. But Chile’s navy (built, for the most part, in British yards) was stronger than anything the Americans could put to sea. When Frelinghuysen took over, he had to extricate the United States from the situation, and in 1883 the Peruvians were forced by Chile to accept the harsh Treaty of Ancón. In the same fashion, he had to repudiate Blaine’s overtures to help Guatemala in a dispute with Mexico in return for bases and concessions. Frelinghuysen also canceled Blaine’s planned Pan-American conference as premature and unlikely to win support.
Frelinghuysen was as taken as Blaine had been with the idea of American capital, machinery, and farm products being used to clothe, feed, and uplift the world’s millions, but he was more readily made aware by events that the hour had not yet struck. He was not only battling the nation’s military weakness but profound congressional apathy. In 1884 he did secure a treaty with Nicaragua that gave the United States canal rights and a virtual protectorate, but it failed in the Senate even before it could create diplomatic problems with the British. (Both nations had promised by the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850 that neither would exclude the other from Central America.) He negotiated reciprocity treaties with Mexico, Spain, and Santo Domingo, but Congress would not implement them. He attempted, in 1884, to join an international consortium that would ostensibly open trade with the Congo to the United States on equal terms with other nations, but in the last month of the Arthur administration, Congress rejected the plan. In the words of the Nation, “the people of the United States want[ed] as little of foreign policy as possible.”
Frelinghuysen also encouraged the mission of Commodore Robert Shufeldt to negotiate trade concessions in the “hermit” kingdom of Korea, actually a protectorate of China. Shufeldt and the Chinese foreign minister worked out an agreement in 1882, the Treaty of Chemulpo, but within another two years the Japanese moved in on a footing of “equality” with the Chinese. In time, they would shut both the Chinese and the Americans out. Frelinghuysen hoped for some influence in the Indo-Chinese nations of Annam, Tonkin, and Cambodia, but the French, in 1884, completed the process of making the entire area a de facto colony ruled from Paris, with no outsiders admitted to benefits.
It was clear that the United States had the beginnings of a will to join in the process reaching its climax in the early 1880s, whereby Africa and Asia were carved up for the white man’s benefit. It was equally clear that the United States lacked the means to join the feast.
Arthur was at least willing to propose that the country begin to acquire the means. In his 1881 annual message he urged a stronger navy, and the next spring he gave full support to William E. Chandler’s vigorous administration of the Navy Department. Chandler pruned the officer corps of superannuated wood-and-canvas devotees and created the Naval War College. He set up a naval advisory board that broke with the idea of coastal defense as the navy’s major mission, and submitted a plan for a fleet that could project America’s power thousands of miles from its shores. The board followed earlier plans for a fleet of sixty-eight ships, most of them steel-hulled, and recommended commencing with the construction of three armor-plated cruisers with good speed, range, and power, plus a dispatch boat. Congress agreed, and Arthur signed the bill authorizing the construction of the Atlanta, the Boston, the Chicago, and the Dolphin. The public nicknamed them the ABCD ships. Chandler was especially pleased that the law allowed him to scrap old vessels whose repair bills exceeded 20 percent of their original cost. “I did my best work,” he exulted, “in destroying the old navy.”
Chandler himself was notoriously entangled with machine politics (the Republican challenge to the vote for Tilden in 1876 had been his idea), and the favoritism of his contract awards created enough Democratic outrage in Congress to block his request for seven more cruisers in 1883, even though no graft was proved. In addition, he failed to get the legislators’ support for a string of coaling stations around the world. And only one of the ABCD ships, the Dolphin, had been put in commission by the last day of Arthur’s term in office.
All the same, the accidental president had set the wheels in motion for the naval revolution of the 1890s, the era of Roosevelt and Mahan. He planted at least some of the seeds they watered. And in his final hours as president he had the pleasure of signing a measure authorizing two more cruisers and two more gunboats.
In all other areas, the Arthur record remained relatively barren. He continued to authorize futile advances toward building a newer, whiter southern Republican party, though he made some routine patronage appointments of black leaders such as P.B. S. Pinchback and Blanche K. Bruce—veterans of Reconstruction’s heyday—to federal posts. But his heart was not in maintaining the old commitments, and when the Supreme Court, in the so-called Civil Rights Cases of 1883, gutted 1875 legislation guaranteeing blacks equal protection of the law, Arthur gave no support to proposed new antisegregation legislation. Although he had some liberal (for that day) notions on the subject of protecting and educating the Indians, they were not translated into any policy that he pressed on Congress.
As convention time in 1884 approached, Arthur had neither a strong record nor many friends to support a reelection bid. His appointments had alienated many Stalwarts without appeasing a significant number of Half-Breeds or winning the hearts of the independent reformers. Neither had he built a public image or constituency; on the contrary, he was conspicuous in his efforts to avoid furnishing good copy to the press. Widowed in January 1880, he lived quietly in the White House, with his little daughter and college-age son, giving elegant state dinners and paying considerable attention to menus and furnishings but yielding nothing to democratic curiosity. “Madam,” he once snapped to a visitor, “I may be President of the United States, but my private life is nobody’s damned business.”
Nominations are not won that way, and though Arthur’s name was offered as a candidate when the Republicans convened at Chicago, he was quickly buried in an avalanche of votes for Blaine. It was just as well. He would not have survived his second term. He died only twenty months after leaving the White House, and the mists of oblivion at once began to settle around his tall, portly but handsome Gilded Age figure. His contemporaries seem to have been grateful to him for doing better than they expected. Historians, when they thought of him at all, belatedly came to see his administration—joined to Garfield’s tragically short one—as a very modest milestone on the road leading to the heights of the imperial presidencies of the succeeding century.